The bottle is an inscrutable black. It invites us quietly, to examine it.
There is script written on its surface, black on black. “Omnia ab Una”- All from One. A hexagram on the vessel mars the onyx smoothness. The mystical symbol hints at its contents- the triangular alchemical symbol for ignis -fire, combined with its inverse, the symbol for aqua– water.
A child of fire and water, then. A child of fire, water and Bruichladdich. It gives away little else.
For as interesting as the bottle is, no ray of light penetrates it. The liquid within is shrouded from eye and mind by an inky black shell. What other mysteries does it hold?
Why is it named, quite ominously, Black Art?
A School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Located in the west of the Hebridian Isle of Islay, in a town that bears its name, Bruichladdich is well isolated from its fellows in the east.
It was built in 1881 by three brothers, Robert, William and John Harvey. The trio also owned Dundashill in Glasgow, one of the largest producers of whisky at the time. Like many distilleries, Bruichladdich started off as little more than a factory supplying malt for blends. As with many other distilleries throughout Scotch’s long history of busts and booms, it gradually fell into disuse- from 1929 to 1937. Eventually, after a series of sales, Bruichladdich finally passed to Whyte and Mackay, who eventually closed it down again in 1994.
That might very well have been the end of the little distillery that could. The stills remained silent for years, as they awaited a new owner to breathe life into it once again. Bruichladdich fell into a deep torpor, dreaming its malty dreams until May 29, 2001. On that very day, independent bottler Murray McDavid, consisting of a group of investors, arrived to rouse it from its uneasy slumber. Islay malts were once again demanded by the world, and the world had come knocking.
Murray McDavid proved to be prescient, and their £6 million investment was repaid tenfold. In 2012, ten years later, Remy Cointreau bought Bruichladdich for £58m, renewing the Auld Alliance in its own little way.
An Old World Charm, a New World Enchantment
Bruichladdich is far from being the largest on the Scottish island of Islay. It has no grand ambitions to outproduce its industrialised peers. Even now, the distillery clings to the trappings of a bygone age.
The old Victorian decor at its premises has been preserved, and whisky is still made in the old way; no computers are used in the production of whisky. Where other distilleries may employ five or ten staff at most, Bruichladdich has almost a hundred. In this age of mass production, things at the distillery are still done by hand, or not at all.
For their part, the new French owners seemed more interested in preserving the distillery’s character than force-feeding the golden goose. For that, we should be grateful.
Yet, the tendrils of modernity tear relentlessly at the edges of tradition. The bottles and packaging betray a modern aesthetic; block words and bold colours quite unlike the elaborate, florid hand of old-world lettering. Unlike most other distilleries, Laddie states exactly what’s in the bottle, on the bottle. The casks used, the age of each of the whiskies used in the vatting, and the exact recipe of each and every batch and bottle. A big step, considering that the most you get from most distillers is an age statement and a pretty design.
And there is, of course, the matter of the whisky itself.
Genie in a Bottle
The tale of Black Art is as much a story of two men as it is of whisky.
At the rebirth of Bruichladdich in 2001, its new master distiller was the stalwart Jim McEwan, who left Bowmore to join the new venture. Under his watchful eye, the malts coming from the distillery have gained acclaim. Unlike its counterparts on Islay (save perhaps Bunnahabhain), Bruichladdich’s character is honeyed, sweet, with tinges of sharp lemon and mellow grain.
Yet, peat or not, Bruichladdich is a child of Islay, perhaps even more so than the others. Farmers produce barley on Islay for the distillery. In 2003, it became the first Islay distillery to bottle its whisky on the island.
The lure of the smoke is as inexorable as the call of the waves on Islay. Port Charlotte, a heavily peated whisky, was launched in 2006, five years after McEwan joined the distillery. It was not coincidental that the first Port Charlotte was a 5 year old. Production was small, and only six thousand bottles of the cask strength whisky were produced.
2 years later, Octomore, an even more heavily peated whisky, was released to roaring acclaim. The first Octomore was aged for six years in Bourbon barrels. Subsequent bottlings did not follow the same pattern. Octomore Orpheus underwent a secondary maturation in French oak from Bordeaux Chateau Petrus. Bottlings 6.1 and 7.1 used only Scottish barley, while 6.3 was produced from Islay barley. Octomore 6.2 was matured in both ex-Bourbon barrels and Limousin oak from Acquitaine, while 7.2 used American oak and ex-Syrah casks from the Rhone Valley. All this while, the peat varied, from 140ppm to 258ppm.
What do we make of this?
Despite the distillery’s fondness of tradition, McEwan was willing to break from the formula, and cast a new mold every time he made malt. While each Octomore shared a name and heavy peating, the focus was on producing good whiskies, not the same whiskies!
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
This philosophy of quality over brand flowed through into the creation of Black Art, a new line of unpeated whiskies, in 2009.
A distillery as old as Bruichladdich was sure to have secrets hidden in its dark depths- precious aged drams sleeping in silent corners, forgotten by time. Treasure was buried in years past, and finally found one cold winter’s eve in 2010. Two men entered Bruichladdich’s Warehouse 6 that night. One was McEwan, the other his protegé, Adam Hennett.
Adam had joined the distillery in 2004, a 19 year old youth looking for a direction in life. In the years between Adam’s first day and that fateful day in the warehouse, McEwan had taken him under his wing, and imparted parts of his vast knowledge to his young pupil.
That very night, Black Art, 1.1, a 19 Year Old whisky, was born. Those who were fortunate enough to have tasted it remarked on its wine and fruit heavy character, a blend of red cherries, strawberries, apricot and brine. Something unique, to be sure.
Black Art 2.1 soon followed in 2011, this time a 21 year old. 3.1 was a 22 year old released in 2012. Jim McEwan made his final Black Art, 4.1, in 2013. A 23 year old whisky, it had a delicate nose of honey, roses, dried mangoes, coconuts, lemon and vanilla. Ah, the flavour was honey sweet, giving way to saline notes, then those of citrus fruit and nuts. The medium finish expressed coconuts and vanilla, and left a pleasant sweetness on the tongue.
A masterpiece, and critics seemed to agree. It was voted Best Single Malt Whisky 2015 and Best Single Malt Scotch (Islay) 2015 at the International Whisky Competition.
In 2015, Jim’s steady hand had been at the helm for 14 years. Through his skill and creativity, he had reinvigourated a sleeping distillery. He had created whiskies to be proud of – a legacy to be proud of. It was finally time to hand over the reins.
None other than Adam Hennett, who had accompanied him on the day that Black Art was created.
Under a spell
In many ways, Black Art is a pet project, a personal statement by the Head Distiller. There is no map to follow, nor prescription nor gospel- he uses what he wishes from the stock in his warehouse, and no two editions are alike. Unlike the distillery’s other whiskies, the final blend of spirit in the Black Art remains a secret to all, save him. The black surface of the bottle occludes all, conceals all.
The Head Distiller is beholden to no one in its creation- no one but himself. Black Art’s secrecy is as bold as the others’ transparency.
Adam Hennett knew that well. Right before his Jim McEwan’s retirement, the sage took Adam to the side and offered him the recipe for Black Art 5. Adam merely smiled, accepted his former mentor’s recipe, and promptly ignored it. Sinatra put it best. Adam had to do it his way.
We had a chance to sample Adam’s Bruichladdich 1990/25– a 25 year old whisky with a nose of grapes, prunes, with water bringing out nuts and salt. That particular dram gave a sherry attack on the palate, followed by grapes, then vanilla, honey and nuts. It turned dry and tannic towards the finish.
While an excellent dram, what impressed us was its complexity- both in the dram itself and its construction. It was a vatting of two batches: the first was a dram matured in a refill bourbon cask for 17 years, then a Bordeaux Grand Cru for 5, and finally a Pedro Ximenez Sherry cask for 4. The other batch was matured in a refill sherry butt for 18 years, and then an oloroso sherry cask for 8. These two were married by Adam in 2016. Its quality gave us confidence in Adam’s Black Art.
We were not disappointed.
The Fifth Black Art
Black Art 5.1 is Adam’s first since he took on the mantle of Head Distiller. It proves to be an even older dram than its predecessors, being aged 24 years, and is of 1992 vintage. With a limited production of 12,000 whiskies bottled at 48.4% ABV, it is packed full of flavour, but does not assault the nose and palate as a cask strength bottling would. The contents are just as inscrutable as the rest of its brothers, at least from the outside.
Nose: Very nutty nose. Vanilla, cream and sugar make for a soft, dry sweetness that brings fresh grain to mind. A bouquet of figs, apricots, and blood orange. And is that a tiny whiff of herbs and vegetables? All the fragrances of a lush orchard at harvest.
Palate: Satisfyingly thick in the mouth. White fruit emerges as we peel back the layers- apricot, peaches, figs. And then, the plums of sherry, a dollop of honey, cream, almonds and vanilla. A drop of saline finally emerges in an otherwise sweet dram. A taste of summer days and a reminder of the sweetness of life.
Finish: A drink that trails off slowly into infinity. Honey, cream and tannin blend with stone fruits and grain to leave a mellow sweetness on the tongue.
All in all, Black Art 5.1 is a good dram that we think compares well to the 4.1. It continues the legacy of quality malts emerging from Bruichladdich, which can only be described as a place of whisky wizardry. There might be no actual sorcery involved, but what comes out of the bottle must surely be magical. One of the more interesting expressions we have tried.
What remains to be discussed, is of course, the price. Here we hit a snag, for the malt magic demands its pound of flesh. At $495 a bottle, it will prove out of reach for most.
Fortunately, there is no need to buy a full bottle to enjoy Black Art 5.1. It will be served at The Wall and La Maison du Whisky by the dram. It is surely worth a try.
Black Art 5.1 can be experienced at The Wall and La Maison du Whisky (80 Mohamed Sultan Rd, #01-10 The Pier, Singapore 239013, Tel: 6733 0059) and can be purchased by the bottle at La Maison du Whisky for $495.
Postscript: Edits were made to clarify that Murray McDavid is a group of investors, not a single person.